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Enduring art

Yakshagana has an eternal appeal, even with the changes that are creeping in

A Yakshagana performance is a compelling spectacle.

THE POPULARITY of Yakshagana has remained steady in the coastal districts of Udupi, Uttara Kannada and Dakshina Kannada in the State, and Kasaragod district in Kerala. Coming down as a heritage since the 15th Century, this captivating and enthralling theatre form, originally a folk genre, has evolved into a sophisticated tradition.

The word, "Yakshagana" means dance and music of the Yaksha style. The play is called the bayalata (field drama) because it was normally held in the paddy field in open air after harvest in November, which continued till May. Yakshagana is also called bhagavatara aata because the musician, the bhagavata, plays an important role. He is the stage director or the singer director.

Epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the main sources of the episodes performed in the Yakshagana Bayalata. An episode is narrated in a sequence of songs called prasagana. The songs which are sung in these episodes, are mostly written by rustic poets. Generally, each episode has about 400 songs. The singer director or stage director sings the songs to the accompaniment of musical instruments such as chande and maddale.

Those enacting the characters of the episode present the sequence of incidents in dance, dialogue and acting. The music, dance and dialogue are strengthened by the support of costume and make-up. Gorgeous costumes befitting the epic heroes were designed by anonymous artistes of yore. Dialogues, spoken extempore, give exposition of the characters and events. In fact, there is a judicious blend of music, dance, costume, dialogue and decor in Yakshagana. The stage is illuminated and artistes in their gorgeous costumes begin to perform their respective roles. The spectacle makes for compelling viewing and listening. Such is the spell of Yakshagana.

The Yakshagana melas or troupes have played a vital role in propagating virtues as portrayed in Indian mythology. These melas are broadly classified into Tenku thitu and Badagu thitu on account of differences in costume, dance, cymbals used and style of singing. But the plots remain the same. Some of the important melas under the Tenku thitu are Kateel Mela, Sunkadakatte Mela, Bapanadu Mela and Dharmasthala Mela, while the some of the notable melas under the Badagu thitu are Saukur Mela, Mandarti Mela, Gundubala Mela, and Maranakatte Mela.

Tenku thitu, which bears elements of Kathakali's influence, is generally popular in Dakshina Kannada and Kasaragod districts, while Badagu thitu is popular in Udupi and Uttara Kannada districts. More importance is given to abhinaya (acting) in Yakshagana performances in Uttara Kannada, compared to Udupi district. But this gap seems to be narrowing slowly.

Temples were the religious and cultural centres in the earlier times, and Yakshagana revolved around them, being supervised by the trustees of the temples. As most of the devotees saw it as a religious duty or if they prayed to the deities for some benediction, they took upon themselves the responsibility of organising the mela in their village or area.

Since there were few other means of entertainment then, the holding of a mela in a village was an elaborate affair, with villagers arriving in advance to witness it. The melas, which started at night, continued till dawn. Some episodes also merited all-night performances. There shorter ones were clubbed with other episodes, entailing two or three enacted at a stretch.

The episodes themselves are normally of two types — kalyana and kalaga. Kalyana means marriage and entails happy ending with the wedding of the hero or heroine. Some examples are Subhadra Kalyana, Hidimba Vivaha and Rukmini Swayamvara.

Kalaga means heroic fight, ending with the villain's death and the hero's victory. Sometimes, it may be also the tragic end of the hero such as Abhimanyu. Some examples are Babruvahana Kalaga, Karnarjuna Kalaga, and so on.

No wonder that art form has remained strong for half a millennium. This is testified by the fact that melas such as Mandarti Mela, Kateel Mela, Maranakatte Mela, and Dharmasthala Mela are booked for months in advance.

However, there are also melas that are not as heavily booked while others face financial problems. It then becomes the responsibility of the proprietor or yajamana of the melas to run them during the remaining period of the season. According to an estimate, a mela has to entail 180 performances in a year to make a profit.

And then there are the tent melas, most of which have introduced innovations that have upset the purists, especially with their introduction of jokes and comic characters. Some of them have given up mythological episodes, choosing instead to portray contemporary social plots.

Another problem is the sad plight of the minor Yakshagana artistes. While the more important artistes get a good salary and lead a comfortable life, the minor ones have to make good with a meagre salary.


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